When considering politics on a national scale, many politically aware people feel helpless due to the unfathomable size and debt of the federal government. They may feel their vote falls into an enormous bucket where it won’t make a difference. They may be right. By contrast, local governments are far more open to citizen participation, so individual opinions and votes can make a difference.
Paradoxically, the policy choices made by one’s local government, which citizens are usually less passionate about, typically have a far great impact on the lives of townspeople than those at the federal or state level. Choices about the local system of taxation concern only a small geographic location and spending is used in a way much closer to home. Unlike the federal government, your local government isn’t spending money on foreign aid or military engagements. More likely, the contentious issues are education and other local projects such as libraries, fire departments and roads. Most towns or city districts have committees and boards meeting every week to govern you or decide how to spend your money.
You should be involved.
Here are some tips on how you can make a difference in your community governance:
Like workers in some other forms of government, such as law enforcement, local committee members can often be resistant to being filmed. Unlike during police encounters, there is almost no ambiguity about the legality of filming public committee meetings. Before filming a local meeting, go to your town’s website, where you should be able to see a town open-meeting law or an acknowledgement of a state open-meeting law. Generally, these laws state that all meetings must be open to the public, allowing filming and comments from citizens of the town.
In other words: any citizens of any town can participate in or film any of their town meetings.
2) Come prepared
Although they are legally required to allow citizens to participate, some committees are used to working relatively secretly. When assigned to film a specific committee meeting in my town several years ago, I could see the meeting through the window, but the committee locked the door and ignored my knocks. This was illegal. If you ever attend a meeting and you are told to leave, let them know the exact wording of the law protecting your right to attend (and/or film) there. In the unlikely event this occurs, film the interaction during which a committee member tries to make you leave. Quite likely, they’re committing a crime. (Hat-tip to Dan Johnson for writing about this citizen’s arrest on an entire board that refused to follow their own open meeting law.)
3) Get an official position
In my time filming local politics, there were several townspeople who attended nearly all of the meetings and gave input and asked questions regularly. Some ended up deciding to join committees, sometimes having to be voted in, and sometimes simply volunteering. Research your town’s committees, and if one pertains to your area of expertise, volunteer or get yourself elected. (In a local setting volunteers often run unopposed.) One student from my high school took a gap year and joined a zoning committee.
4) Attend town-wide meetings and participate in elections
Additionally, it is common that at least yearly a town meeting will be held where the general populace is presented several issues to vote on. Attend, speak, and vote. Unlike a presidential election, most local elections and town-wide meetings only draw a small fraction of the populace. In other words, your vote can really make a difference. Usually, a town warrant describing the matters to be discussed and voted on can be acquired before the meeting. Try to understand the language of each thing you may be voting on.
Remember that as a citizen, you also have the ability to propose amendments or speak out against any item you take issue with.
For example, in my town’s meeting about a year ago, a full budget bill included a list of over 20 expenditures. One of these was $20,000 for Tasers. Previously, the police in my town had not carried Tasers and had never had a shooting incident (thankfully). Before the budget was voted on, I stood in front of the meeting and proposed an amendment removing the Tasers after a quick speech about why I felt they were unneeded in our nearly crimeless community. While I only got 30% of the vote, this made it clear that people are sometimes willing to follow when somebody else leads them in resisting. Nearly a third of my town raised their hands to vote against the new police weapons, and it only took one person (me) to allow them to show that level of support.
(See me around 23 minutes into this video.)
While my anti-Taser amendment might have failed, the year before a resident managed to get an amendment passed preserving the decriminalization of marijuana in my town. A bill had been proposed to recriminalize (while the state had lowered it to a civil offense) for our town, and one individual was all it took to get people (including myself) to stand up against the new criminal statute.
In town meetings, things can get heated. The townspeople will yell at each other and call each other names over baseball fields and libraries. Understand that while your voice can make a difference, you may not win every battle. That doesn’t mean you should bow down to a misguided majority. Keep trying. You can be confident in the value of your local political participation: your voice truly can make a difference.
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Ford Fischer is an independent journalist, filmmaker and web designer, and the cofounder of News2share.com. He has reported on a number of topics from local and national politics to international conflict and special interest interviews. You can find his videography on IMDB and a partial news portfolio here.